Leeds, UK

Tai Shani, Dark Continent: SEMIRAMIS, 2018, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Jules Lister.

Tai Shani, Dark Continent: SEMIRAMIS, 2018, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Jules Lister.

Tai Shani

The Tetley

Tai Shani, Dark Continent: SEMIRAMIS, 2018, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Jules Lister.

“Dark Continent: SEMIRAMIS,” Tai Shani’s exhibition at the Glasgow International festival this past spring—a four-day event that included actors performing the artist’s scripts within a sculptural installation—was roundly praised by critics, so it was interesting to see her subsequent exhibition in Leeds, which expanded on some of the ideas deployed in that project. “Semiramis” envisioned a kind of city of women with twelve key characters that Shani has developed over the past four years. Occupying the entire building, the show extended from the downstairs foyer—where literary sources such as The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (ca. 1405), Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976), and Gender Trouble by Judith Butler (1990) provided a sharp radical view of history—to the second floor, where she presented the installation she showed in Glasgow, an arrangement of objects ironically pastiching architectural forms and materials and providing a stylish occult fetishism. Video works spread across nine small rooms around the building’s atrium presented portraits of the twelve characters alongside archival displays, including footage of the performance in Scotland, poster designs for each persona, paintings, and an oversize book in a glass cabinet. These elements developed a contemporary adaptation of de Pizan’s proto-feminist text.

Through multiple references to Beyoncé and Terminator 2’s Sarah Connor, as well as a soundtrack by the pop group Let’s Eat Grandma, whose short bursts of music, like siren songs from some earlier or imminent civilization, echoed around the exhibition space, the show mirrored Pizan’s extraordinary fifteenth-century allegory about a future city for women. Using past examples for future speculations in the present, the artist knitted science fantasy and identity politics into a postdigital environment to produce a sort of feminist futurism. In each of the videos, individual actors describe their fantastic personal histories in lengthy monologues spoken directly to the camera. Figures such as the Vampyre, the Neanderthal (which has no language and can reproduce parthenogenetically), the Teenager, and the Woman on the Edge of Time all appear as silhouetted talking heads, highlighted by cosmic, plasma-like colored light that accentuates their dislocation from time, space, and history.

As much as this speculative genre has potential to create a new discourse around gender politics, as well as relevance to current discussions on contemporary feminism, any form of futurism can also be seen as a fantastic distraction from reality. The civil rights and women’s movements of the past century represent some of the major political advances of that era, and their struggles were of the here and now. As Martine Syms advised in “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto” (2013), there are “no alternative universes” in which our problems are solved, “no time travel or teleportation” to bring us where we want to go; we need to avoid irrational mysticism. In giving in to such temptations, Shani’s work becomes an art of illustration or pure referentiality—appropriating and scrambling together historical texts, psychoanalytical theory, modish sci-fi, and other current interests in the desperate hope that something new will emerge. This illustrative form allows any glimpse of a transformed utopian future society to appear only as a retro mirage.

But there’s an upside. Shani’s energetic efforts reflect an impulse to act, and to do so collectively. Progress toward racial and gender equality would have been impossible without spontaneous grassroots activity in small communities, and Shani’s work represents a kind of DIY activism, not just to recover the long and rich history of feminist art and thought but to inject it with new urgency and free it from the fixed institutionalized forms it has taken over time. In this respect, she strikes an important note for our era. In years to come, we might remember this small exhibition as a germinal moment. If so, I hope Shani remains true to her form of light opera or variety show, rather than becoming fully professionalized—and that, as one of her characters suggests, she keeps up her slightly clumsy but beautiful attempts to throw us a holographic kiss from the end of time.